2006 Bass Giants (Special Issue)

Many thanks to Stephen for donating this magazine!


Essential Listening

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik [Warner Bros., 1991)

Gear Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay, Spector bass, Modulus Flea Bass, ’61 Fender Jazz Bass, GEIS Boomers; Gallien-Krueger and Mesa/Boogie amps; Boss AW-2 Auto Wah, Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive, Boss FT-2 Dynamic Filter, MXR Micro Amp; dbx 160X compressor; Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron, Electro-Harmonix BassBalls


Red Hot Chili Peppers

It’s always been cool to play bass, but Flea made it look even cooler. This slap-and-pop monster proves that funk and rock belong together.

How did you first gel turned on to slapping?

n high school. I saw some guy slapping on a bass. and I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.” So I started doing it. When I got into punk, the way I slapped wasn’t really funky: it was as hard as I could, just abusing the bass. When I slap, I slain the strings as hard as I can with my thumb; I use only my middle finger—never my index or ring fingers—to pop. If the part is very intricate, I use mostly a wrist motion, but usually it involves the whole arm. I’ve seen people slap and hardly move their hand at all, but anyone who’s ever seen one of our shows knows that’s not me! I believe if I get my whole body into it, I can play better. I’m really into the punk ethic: Play every note like it your last—you could be dead tomorrow! And when you perform, give every ounce of energy you have.

My playing has always been very physical: a constant whackeda-whackeda-whack. I don’t do it to impress people. Understand that my roots are in punk, which was all about playing hard, fast, and loud. Dynamics are important in music, and everything else—that tension and release. When you play less, it’s more exciting—there’s more room for everything. If I do play something busy, it stands out, instead of the bass being a constant onslaught of notes. Space is good. I used to play too many darn notes, and there was no room for them to breathe: it’s nice to relax and play some simple things that are really beautiful. It’s important to remember that anyone who has good technique can, with just one note, imply a billion more. Louis Armstrong never needed to play fast.

My biggest strength as a musician is that I sound like myself, not anybody else. The only way I’m going to keep growing and changing is to be vulnerable as a human being. People I admire—musicians who have remained relevant throughout their entire lifetimes—seem to be the ones who age with dignity and who have love in their hearts. That’s my goal.

What’s your opinion of the role of the bass?

It’s difficult to generalize, but I like hearing the bass when it’s really locking in with the drums. Very seldom do I enjoy bass playing that takes center stage; even on a funk song where the bass is the focus, such as Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” [Uncle Jam Wants You. Priority’, it’s just a funky groove—it’s not ‘Look at me.” Plenty of bass players have fancy chops, but they don’t make you feel any emotions. You don’t feel anger, fear, or love. That’s what I call all flash and no smash; a phrase I got from Lonnie Marshall of the band Weapon Of Choice.

 So what’s your function as the Chili Peppers bassist?

My position goes beyond that of just a bass player: I also consider myself an entertainer. As a bassist, my job is to kick ass. When I pick up my bass and play with the band, it’s time to get serious. It’s my job to give my all every time I play, no matter how I feel. But I also buy into the show-biz aesthetic of giving a dazzling performance, and I’m into putting on a show.

Have you ever given lessons?

There was a time when I needed some cash, so I decided to give bass lessons. People came over and when they sat down to play, I realized I didn’t know what to say! All I could tell them was to go for it—get inside the instrument and do what you do as hard as you can. Most of my influences have been emotional, not technical. As a result, I try to apply all of my spiritual and physical energy to the music and believe in it.

Which of your life experiences had the deepest impact on your playing?

Seeing my stepdad play upright bass in our living room when I was eight had a huge influence on me. I’d watch him and his friends play hardcore bebop, which to me is one of the highest forms of expression—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and technically; America has come up with nothing better than bebop. Seeing them play filled me with this incredible feeling of joy I’d never experienced before.

Meeting [Chili Peppers singer] Anthony Kiedis in high school had a lot to do with how I ended up as a musician. He was the first kid I met who didn’t give a shit about being like anybody else. The way he talked, the way he dressed, and the way he acted had a big influence on me. He was so anti: he thought anyone who tried to be like anyone else was lame.

What advice can you give to fellow musicians?

My only advice is to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anybody else. In general, I believe that if you don’t really love what you’re doing, you should stop right away—and if you do truly want to play, then you should play your own way and play what makes you feel good. Try to recognize the parts of your character that are your own, because a lot of people do things they think other people will like instead of embracing what they love. Do that on your instrument—play something you like, not something you’d do for someone else. That’s what makes great music. My best advice for someone who wants to play music, though, is this: Pretend music is a big Mona Lisa, and paint a mustache on it!

If you’re an improvising musician, you have to trust yourself and love yourself, so that when you do what you do, it’ll be beautiful because you are who you arc. And if you’re not a humble, giving person, there’s no way you can love or trust yourself. The great musicians trust themselves to let go, become completely untethered, and give themselves to the process. You can feel the character of who they are in their playing. And when they have a clear conscience because they know they mean well in the world, the music is beautiful. It can be argued that there are a lot of great musicians who were angry and bitter people, like maybe Miles Davis, who was one of the greatest improvisers of all time. But I believe every note Miles played was packed with love. The things he was angry about were injustices in the world, and the way he manifested it often came across as bitterness. But the motivation was love.

Anything for bassists in particular?

Play all the time and practice all the time. Listen to what’s going on, and be supportive of what you’re hearing. Go beyond aesthetic and style and get into the substance of bass playing, because the right bass part can make or break a song. Any instrument is just a vehicle to express who you are and your relationship to the world. No matter what level you’re doing it on, playing music is an opportunity to give something to the world.

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